The Passenger Pigeon/Chapter IX


A Reply to Professor Roney's Account of the Michigan Nestings of 1878.


E. T. Martin,

In the Chicago Field, Jan. 25, 1879.
E. T. Martin's Headquarters at Boyne Falls, Michigan, during the Nesting of 1878.

Fac-simile reproduction of circular, issued 1879, showing E, T. Martin's pigeon headquarters at Boyne Falls, Mich.


The Pigeon Butcher's Defense

By E. T. Martin, from the "American Field," Chicago,

January 25, 1879.

The preceding chapter by Prof. H. B. Roney in American Field, was answered by E. T. Martin, a game dealer of Chicago, who afterwards issued a pamphlet, the first page of which is herewith reproduced, and I make quite extensive extracts from the body of the circular, which incidentally advertises Martin as "the largest dealer in live pigeons for trap shooting in the world, also a dealer in guns, glass balls, traps, nets, etc."

I call the reader's attention to the following:

In the table given of the shipments from Petoskey and Boyne Falls, etc., during 1878, Martin estimates the number shipped alive from Cheboygan as 89,730, yet H. T. Phillips of Detroit, shows from his records that he alone shipped from that point 175,000 that year. So if Martin's estimates are all as far wrong as this one, he should account for a total shipment of over 2,000,000 pigeons.

In Martin's circular, he seems to take offense at some remarks Prof. Roney has made in this article that reflect upon the character of these netters, for Martin uses in quotation marks the following: "A reckless, hard set of men, pirates, etc.," which seems to have some foundation in fact, as Martin says: "In proof of the pigeons feeding squab indiscriminately, I may mention the fact that one of the men in my employ this year, while at the Shelby nesting in 1876 in one afternoon shot and killed six hen pigeons that came to feed the one squab in the same nest." Further comment is unnecessary.—W. B. M.

A LITTLE after the middle of March a body of birds began nesting some twelve miles north of Petoskey, near Pickerel Lake. About April 8 another and larger body "set in" along Maple and Indian Rivers, and Burt Lake, and near Cross Village, there being in all some seven or eight distinct nestings, covering perhaps, of territory actually occupied by the nesting, a tract some fifteen miles long and three of average width, or forty-five square miles.

The principal catch was made from the Crooked and Maple rivers nestings, and when the former "broke," which was about May 25, the pigeoners pulled up and left, many going home, and others to the Boyne Falls nesting, some thirty miles south, which "set in" at about the same time. This gave a duration of two and one-third months to the Petoskey nesting proper, though it is true that, feed being abundant, some very few birds remained around, roosting for a little longer.

The Boyne Falls nesting lasted something over a month and broke early in July; from this the catch was very light. After that, the only catch was a few young birds taken "on bait."

Besides these nestings, there was one further south on the Manistee River, some twenty-six miles long by five average width, or 130 square miles. In which the birds hatched three times, and from which not a bird was caught, as it was an impenetrable swamp, and the putting of birds on the market would be attended with such expense as to destroy the profit. There were also one or two smaller ones, east of this one. These comprised the Michigan nestings. In addition to which, at Sheffield, Pa., there was fully as large a body, and fully as large a catch as at the Crooked and Maple nestings, the birds hatching there, I think, three times, each hatching taking four weeks, from the beginning of nest building to the time the old birds leave the young. It is true, however, that birds were shipped from Petoskey the middle of August, but they were birds belonging to me that I was holding there for a market, my Chicago pens being full. Every bird of them had been in my possession for a month previous, and many for six weeks. So the actual pigeon business lasted not five months, as Prof. Roney says, but about three; part of which time the total catch was not fifty dozen per day.

· · · · ·

They (Prof. Roney et al.) came to Petoskey with a great flourish of trumpets, hired expensive livery rigs to ride around the country in, made one or two arrests, secured one conviction by default, were defeated in every case that came to trial, had one of the party play the role of "terrible example" in the trout case, and then went home, and in the face of the fact that they had eaten, or known of having been eaten, hundreds of pigeons, and of the certainty that the report was false, had published in the Saginaw paper a report that the pigeons then being caught in Michigan were feeding on poisoned berries, and the using them for food had caused much sickness, and in one or two instances loss of life.

This was not only published in the home papers, but was telegraphed to New York, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati, and marked copies of the notice sent to the press of neighboring cities, the avowed object being to cause such a decline in price as to force the netters to quit. It was based on the idea that most of them were men of small means, and that unless ready market offered for their birds, they must give out. The effect was to cause a drop in price of fifty cents a dozen in New York and Boston in a single day, to cause the price in Chicago to decline to twenty cents per dozen, and to take the last cent out of the pockets of a hundred netters, leaving many who became discouraged and had to walk long distances to their homes, dependent on chance for even a mouthful to eat. Many, though, held out. Telegrams of denial were sent, and the market in a week or two rallied somewhat, though it was a month before prices in the East touched the same figure as when the "poison-berry" telegrams were received. During the week when prices were lowest I refused to buy many dead birds offered me at five cents per dozen, preferring to lend the netter money, or to advance it on his next catch to be saved alive.

And, by the way, let me say that killing the pigeons by pincers is an instantaneous and painless death, the neck being broken by a single movement, and the fluttering spoken of being the same seen in any bird shot through the head, or with the head cut off. But had the market remained unbroken, had this infamous poisoned berry story never been started, no such net results in way of profit would have been reached as Prof. Roney says. Under very favorable circumstances, a good netter in such a season as we had in 1878, would make from $100 to $200, but by far the larger portion would not reach $100 over expenses.

At the Crooked and Maple nestings day in and day out the average catch was about twenty dozen per day to each net and two men. These sold, except immediately after the "poisoned berry story," at from twenty to thirty cents per dozen head, at the net, or if the catcher was saving alive, in which case his catch would be one-third smaller, owing to the trouble of handling the live birds, he would get from thirty-five to forty-five cents.

The principal object in saving them alive was that no birds spoiled from warm weather, and at my pens close by the nesting they would be received at any hour, while to sell dead birds it was necessary to depend on some chance buyer or to haul to Petoskey, fourteen miles distant. At Boyne Falls prices were a little higher, say twenty-five for dead and fifty cents for live, but the average catch was not five dozen per day to each net. There were exceptions both ways, which went of course to make up the average, the most notable being that of the 2,000 dozen caught by one party, not in ten days, but in twenty, employing two nets and six men. This I know, for I was at the net and saw part of the catching, while Prof. Roney never got that far. This 2,000 dozen was shipped East and netted the catchers just fifteen cents a dozen at the net, or $300 for twenty days' work for six men and two nets, while on the other hand, during the same time, many better catchers who had not been lucky in location hadn't made enough to pay for board. Names, locations, etc., can be furnished if Prof. Roney desires.

The Professor then goes on to lament his failure before our Emmett County jury. The reason why is very simple, he never proved his case. This whole pigeon trade was a perfect Godsend to a large portion of Emmett County. The land outside of Petoskey is taken up by homesteaders, who, between clearing their land, scanty crops, poor soil, large families, and small capital, are poorer than Job's turkey's prodigal son, and in years past have had all they could do fighting famine and cold, and but a year or so since all Michigan was sending relief to keep them from starving, thousands of dollars being contributed, and then most harrowing tales being told of need and destitution.

The "pirates and bummers" left some $35,000 in good greenbacks right among the most needy of these people. Many were enabled to buy a team, others to clear more land, more to increase their crops, and all to lay in provisions and clothing to meet the bitter winter we are now passing through, and this money did more to open up Emmett County than years of ordinary work. It put scorces of honest, hard-working homesteaders on their feet; it increased trade, and, if sent by a special act of Providence, could not have done more good. Such being the case, can any blame be given an Emmett County jury if they required evidence direct and to the point before convicting? And in no case that came to trial was direct evidence given. So the four true "sportsmen" there in behalf of justice and humanity, had such a cold reception from all, that they concluded strategy beat that kind of work all to death, pulled up stakes and hurried home, and worked up the poisoned berry business.

· · · · ·

Now, about the merciless slaughter. Prof. Roney estimates 1,500,000 dead and 80,000 live birds as the shipments, and then goes on to say that one billion birds have been destroyed! What logic.

I have official figures before me, and they show that the shipments from Petoskey and Boyne Falls were:

Petoskey, dead, by express 490,000
Petoskey, alive, by express 86,400
Boyne Falls, dead 47,100
Boyne Falls, alive 42,696
Petoskey, dead, by boat, estimated 110,000
Petoskey, alive, by boat, estimated 33,640
Cheboygan, dead, by boat, estimated 108,300
Cheboygan, alive, by boat, estimated 89,730
Other points, dead and alive, estimated 100,000
Total 1,107,866
This may be set down as accurate or nearly so, and 1,500,000 will cover the total destruction of birds by net, gun and Indians. The total number of nesting and not over fifty barrels of these ever reached a market, the Indians smoking the remainder for winter use. No one knows how many birds 1,500,000 are until they see them, and handle a few. As an illustration: To buy and sell 125,000 birds in four months, it took myself, two men and a boy all our time, working from daylight until after dark every day.

I doubt if there were a billion birds in all the Crooked and Maple nestings. I am certain that there were not at any one time. I am also certain that more than double as many young birds left those nestings than all the birds caught, killed or destroyed. The morning that the Crooked nesting broke, I was out at daylight, and at the net to see and help one of my men make a strike; for an hour and a half a continuous body of birds half a mile wide and very thick was going out; our strike was twenty-nine dozen, twenty-five dozen young and four dozen old, about the same proportion as the other catchers. This showed that of the immense body over five-sixths were young birds, barely old enough ones remaining to guide the body of young, and this was out of the nesting from which the bulk of the birds had been caught, where the destruction had been the greatest. When it is considered that the Manistee birds hatched three times unmolested, that there was a body several times larger there, than at the Crooked and Maple, and that many from each body went further north entirely out of reach and nested at least once, possibly twice again, some idea may be formed of the immense addition to the army of pigeons from the Michigan nestings of 1878. Many more young birds left the Crooked River nesting alone, than all, old or young, destroyed during the entire season's pigeoning.

Prof. Roney's lament about the young dying when deprived of the parent bird, and his addition to the number "sacrificed to Mammon" from that source, compares favorably with the poisoned berry story, or the attack on Turner. Admitting that 1,500,000 birds were caught and killed, not more than half of these would be old birds, some of which would not be nesting, and from some of which the young had left the nest. If for every one of the 750,000 old birds caught and killed, the squab had died, this would make a total slaughter of 2,250,000, or about one four hundred and fiftieth of the number he says.

I don't believe Prof. Roney knows what a billion is. However, there were not 750,000, no, nor 100,000 squabs killed by losing their parents. It is a well-proved fact that the old bird coming in will stop and feed any squab heard crying for food, that in this way they look out for one another's young, and the orphans or half-orphans are cared for. It is rare, however, for both old birds to be caught or killed, since the toms and hens when nesting always fly separately, and the chance of both the parents of the squab falling a "victim to Mammon," particularly in a large nesting, is small. As proof of the pigeons feeding squabs indiscriminately, I may mention that one of the men in my employ this year, at the Shelby nesting in 1876, in one afternoon shot and killed six hen pigeons that came to feed the one squab in the same nest.

· · · · ·

Why, Prof. Roney, the catch went on all the same, your party made no difference of note, but the weather was rough and somewhat stormy; the birds didn't "stool" well, and during the days mentioned the catch was very small, hence the decrease in shipments. Now, regarding the law, it is well enough as it is; one shotgun near a nesting is more destructive than a dozen nets; the report of the gun causes the birds to rise in thousands, and, when repeated, to leave in a body, regardless of nest or squab, and never to return; as an example, may be mentioned, the Minnesota nesting of 1877, when the birds were driven entirely away.

The net is silent; its work occasions no alarm; it makes no cripples, consequently it can be admitted nearer to the nests than its more noisy partner. Protect the pigeons entirely, and a law forbidding catching during nesting time is equivalent to entire protection, and you have northern Michigan overrun with a pest that will destroy the farmer's seed as fast as sown, and when harvest time approaches, pounce upon a wheat field ready for the reaper and in an hour not leave even enough for the gleaner. Their increase would be more rapid, their stay longer, and in four years not only would the law be repealed, but inducements to slaughter would be held out to rid the State of the rapidly increasing and destructive pests.

The pigeon never will be exterminated so long as forests large enough for their nestings and mast enough for their food remain.

In conclusion, the pigeons are as much an article of commerce as wheat, corn, hogs, beeves, or sheep. It is no more cruel to kill them for market by the thousand, than it is to countenance the killing at the stock yards in this or any other large commercial center. The paper to-night shows that in six cities over four million hogs have been killed since Nov. 1, 1878, or two and a half months, a larger slaughter than, during the same time, of pigeons at the nestings by nearly threefold. Yet this is not "sacrificing to Mammon." A farmer can market his poultry dead or alive at any time of the year, and the slaughter, the country over, is larger than that of pigeons, yet no one in the interest of "justice and humanity" interferes.

The pigeon is migratory, it can care for itself. It nests in the impenetrable wilds of Arkansas, the Indian Territory, Canada and British America, as often as in the land of civilization where it can be reached for market. It is a source of profit to the poor, or pleasure to the rich. Its benefits to the Emmett County home- steaders, as felt through the cold of this winter alone, are enough to compensate for evils even as black as our Prof. Roney paints, and Emmett County is but a sample of whatever location the birds may settle in.

Let the law, in regard to distance, stand as it is. Enforce it against all alike; make no exceptions; let the rule of supply and demand govern the catchings, and you will have something better than all the professors in Michigan suggest. Let the supply be so large that prices are low and wages can't be made, and law or no law, the catching will stop. But don't make a law that will take bread out of the homesteader's mouth, and work from hundreds of poor and honest men; no, not even if the birds should be sacrificed, to a certain extent, for man is above the beasts, and the "beasts of the field and the birds of the air" are given unto him for his benefit and his profit.

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A typical game store of the early 70's